Steven John Isserlis is one of the leading internationally ranked cellists. He plays a wide range of repertory and is noted for using gut strings and a great deal of vibrato. He is the grandson of Russian composer and pianist Julius Isserlis and can trace his family tree back to connections with both Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn.
He spent most of his teenage years (1969-1976) as a pupil of Jane Cowan at the International Cello Centre. He describes her teaching method as both "total immersion" and "very holistic." For instance, she required the students to read Goethe's Faust in order to understand Beethoven better and memorize Racine to know the sound of the French language when playing French music. During his last two years at the Cello Centre he lived at her house in Scotland three times a year for eight-week stretches.
After finishing at the International Cello Centre, he went to study in the United States at Oberlin College in Ohio with Richard Kapuscinski (1976-1978). During this period, he made his debut in London in 1977. After graduation from Oberlin, he began to establish what has become one of the major cello careers. He has played with many of the leading orchestras and conductors in the world, including the London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, and the London Philharmonic under such conductors as John Eliot Gardiner, Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph Eschenbach, Roger Norrington, Colin Davis, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. He is also very active as a chamber player. In 1991, he founded a regular trio with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Olli Mustonen, and frequently gives recitals with pianist and fortepianist Melvin Tan. Other frequent partners have been Stephen Kovacevich, Tabea Zimmermann, Pamela Frank, and Stephen Hough.
He performs the major cello repertory from before Bach to current times. When he plays Classical- or Baroque-era works, he is likely to do so with "period instrument" ensembles. He uses his own cello (sometimes with a slight change in set-up) on such occasions rather than a Baroque cello. However, he often practices for such concerts with a Baroque or Classical bow to get an idea of the likely phrasing and articulation.
One of the most famous late twentieth century works for cello and orchestra, John Tavener's The Protecting Veil, was written for him, and he gave it its first performance in London in 1989 and its American debut in Boston in 1993. He also recorded its first release, on Virgin Classics, a recording that won a Grammophone Award. In 1992, he received the Piatigorsky Artist Award, and in 1993 got the Royal Philharmonic Society's Instrumentalist of the Year Award. Other composers who have written new music for Isserlis include Elizabeth Maconchy, Howard Blake, and Robert Saxton. Isserlis has recorded the Elgar concerto, Britten's Cello Symphony, Bloch's Schelomo, and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, which he played in the composer's original version, and received wide acclaim for them.
He was an exclusive artist on the Virgin Records label, going back to the days when it was a large independent company, and continued with it for several years after it was acquired by EMI. He now has an exclusive contract with BMG Classics with plans to release major contemporary cello works and standard works on the RCA Victor Red Seal label.
He has increased his teaching activities and gives master classes at the Manchester Cello Festival, and since 1996, when he succeeded Sandor Végh as artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar in Cornwall, England, he has taught and given master classes there annually.